Holidays cannot not be deemed “essential” travel. The prospect of six months of ‘shutdown’ restrictions may, to many, make overseas breaks seem frivolous. Yet, in my experience, even briefly swapping gloom-laden Britain for somewhere with a sunnier disposition delivers a much-needed shot of positivity.
My chosen destination, a 2,700-year-old city, the capital of a country that’s now firmly on the UK’s quarantine list, felt somehow (face masks aside) normal. Post-lockdown London, by contrast, has an uncanny resemblance to the one I’d called home for nine years pre-Covid. Office blocks and the surrounding areas remain almost lifeless, while “Eat out to Help Out” hotspots, such as Soho, have been disconcertingly crowded.
In Lisbon, however, I found a happy medium. No one veered out of my path as I clambered up the steep streets of the Alfama district. No suspicious looks were exchanged with fellow passengers as we waited patiently for the driver to restart the number 28 “tourist” tram.
On my aiport transfer into the city, I watched diners lounging outside cafes, families walking dogs along the cobbled streets and surfers heading for the beach. A warmer climate such as Lisbon’s (temperatures topped 35C in early September) makes outdoor living practical in a way that can only be achieved for a few precious heatwave weeks in London.
Just two nights in Lisbon allowed me to claw back some of this year’s lost summer. I took a daytrip to the beaches of Estoril and Cascais, west of the city. There was no fear of contributing to a staycation “Armageddon” or the afternoon’s beach time being written up as a “major incident”. Sunbathers were adhering to social distancing guidlines. But the rest was as before: teenagers daring one another to jump from rocks into the Atlantic, sunbathers batting away seagulls, merchants laden with sarongs.
There was a quiet buzz. It was a priviledge to visit Lisbon at this time. The the city has weathered overcrowding in recent years. In 2019, 27 million people visited Portugal (up from 6.8 million in 2010), some 2.1 million of those were Britons. Among British holidaymakers, 0.4 million headed to the Lisbon metropolitan area, making it second favourite behind the Algarve (1.2 million).
Trish Lorenz, a journalist and resident of Lisbon, told Telegraph Travel in 2018. “Overtourism is definitely an issue in Portugal, mostly in Lisbon and Porto. The surge has happened very quickly and infrastructure isn’t keeping up. There are huge queues for tickets at railway stations, standing room only on public transport, and issues around noise and litter mean locals are increasingly fed up.”
The coronavirus crisis, global travel restrictions and a period of lockdown has brought a reprieve. On my visit, crowds certainly weren’t an issue.
Over the week preceding my arrival, there was building concern that Portugal would be re-added to the UK’s travel red list. Then, on September 3, both Scotland and Wales decided that Portugal would rejoin their lists. However, the UK Government held fire, before triggering quarantine again from September 12.
By the time I reached the country, thousands of British holidaymakers had already cut their losses. They’d cancelled, or curtaling, Portugal breaks for fear of finding themselves housebound on return. This may have contributed to the mere smattering of Britons I encountered around the city. There was a healthy dose of German voices, a few French and some American, but the majority were Portuguese.
This had its perks as a tourist: easy-to-book restaurant tables; half-empty attractions (the shadows of the Jeronimos Monastery cloisters were only occasionally disturbed by a passerby) and that intangible thing that many “travellers” claim to seek – experiencing somewhere as if you were a local.
Isabella Noble, a travel writer who has also recently returned from Lisbon, had a similar experience. She told me: “I barely had to queue for Sintra’s palaces and mansions; and there was more than enough space to spread out on the beaches.”
A reset could be in order for Lisbon. In July, its mayor, Fernando Medina, announced a plan to incentivise landlords to transform the city centre’s short-term Airbnb-type rented accommodation into homes for key workers. Meanwhile, the Portuguese Government has decided to hold off excluding Lisbon from the country’s golden visa scheme. These visas can offer non-EU citizens a route to residency, if they spend at least €500,000 on a property, less in certain areas. There was an uptick in interest over the summer: May was a record month, gathering 270 applications.
Foreigners, it seems, want a stake in the city, even amid Covid. Tourism workers are tentatively enjoying the tranquilty. Catarina Laires, a Lisbon resident and PR manager for The Lumiares and The Vintage hotels, said: “There is a mixed feeling here for locals. We miss foreign voices but at the same time we can enjoy bike rides near the river with fewer people and less traffic.”
Riding the tram, there didn’t seem to be a foreign visitor on board. Face masks were worn by all and passengers spaced out as best they could. With the windows open, it was certainly better ventilated than the tube.
To give the full picture: a trip to Lisbon is not without Covid restrictions. I was reminded to wear my face covering when walking around a restaurant. Use of hand sanitiser, and distancing were enforced at attractions. A couple queueing (in a short line) for the monastery were reprimanded for stepping slightly over a spacing marker. Yet, somehow, the new rules and regulations didn’t dampen the city’s atmosphere.
I had more than a smidgen of envy towards Lisbonites as I left the city. This turned to sadness for the hoteliers and restaurateurs struggling in a deadened tourist season when Portugal was, soon after, put back on the UK quarantine list.
Source: The Telegraph